Lucky Linderman didn't ask for his life. He didn't ask his grandfather not to come home from the Vietnam War. He didn't ask for a father who never got over it. He didn't ask for a mother who keeps pretending their family is fine. And he certainly didn't ask to be the recipient of Nadar McMillan's relentless bullying, which has finally gone too far.
Lucky has a secret—one that helps him wade through the daily dysfunction of his life. Grandad Harry, trapped in the jungles of Laos, has been visiting Lucky in his dreams—and the dreams just might be real: an alternate reality where he can be whoever he wants to be and his life might still be worth living. But how long can Lucky remain in hiding there before reality forces its way inside?
Lucky Linderman’s Granny Janice died when he was seven. But before she passed she tasked him with an impossible mission – to bring his granddad home. But Lucky’s granddad can’t come home – he was drafted in the Vietnam war and became one of the thousands of missing soldiers, going on the long list of POW/MIA and irrevocably ruining the Linderman family.
Granny Janice’s final breaths smelled like week-old oysters. She was pretty high on morphine and talking to herself. I didn’t know what to say, so I held her hand tightly and said, “Good-bye, Granny. I love you.”
Her fluttering eyelids lurched open, and she grabbed my forearm so hard that it left a red mark that outlived her. She said, “Lucky, you have to rescue my Harry! He’s still in the jungle being tortured by those damn gooks!”
“Gooks?” I asked.
“It’s the medicine, Lucky,” Mom whispered to me.
“You have to find him and bring him back! You need a father!” Granny blurted.
Then she died.
My mother sent me out of the room, which was fine by me, but she couldn’t erase those words from my memory. If Granny Janice needed me to do something, then I'd do it, even if I didn’t quite understand her orders.
Lucky’s dad never got over not having a dad. He grew up altered by the loss, and now Lucky likens him to a turtle – hard shell exterior, always retreating into his own world.
But if Lucky’s dad is a turtle, then his mom is a squid. She swims 200 laps every day in the local pool; she swims to escape, to forget that she says ‘yes’ to everything and stands up for nothing, not even Lucky.
But Lucky needs someone to stand up for him. Nader McMillan has been bullying Lucky ever since he peed on his shoes in a restaurant bathroom when he was seven-years-old. Now that they’re fifteen-years-old and Nader is a lifeguard at the local swimming pool, the bullying is getting worse. And it’s not just Lucky who Nader picks on. Everyone is scared of Nader and his quick-to-sue lawyer father. Girls are especially terrified of Nader and his torments. But nobody does anything.
A particularly horrific act of bullying sends Lucky’s mother into hiding. She packs up and takes Lucky to Arizona, to stay with her brother, Dave, and his overweight, pill-popping wife, Jodi.
Lucky has a scab the exact shape of Ohio on his face, to remind him of Nader McMillan and a childhood worth of hurt. At night he dreams of rescuing his limb-less grandfather from a Vietnam jungle prison. But even states away from his problems back home, Lucky starts to realize that he doesn’t want to be another turtle, like his father.
‘Everybody Sees the Ants’ was the 2011 young adult book by Printz Honor recipient, A.S. King.
I fell under King’s spell with her magical realist/literary YA fiction novel ‘Please Ignore Vera Dietz’. I vowed to consume everything King writes, and ‘Everybody Sees the Ants’ is more brilliance to convince me of her writing prowess.
The book covers a landscape of teen problems, without ever being preachy. A huge focus of the novel is on Lucky being bullied by one Nader McMillan. Everybody had a Nader in their school life, or at least watched one from a distance as he picked on other kids (secretly relieved to avoid his wrath). A.S. King has perfectly captured the menacing awfulness of this Nader character, who is so senselessly cruel that he substitutes for any reader’s personal bully from their childhood.
Nader is on the wrestling team, his father is a lawyer who is quick to cry foul on all complaints made about his son. Nader is a mindless and gutless bully – with a cache of followers who are too scared to stand up to him, so follow him blindly in his cruelty. Girls are particular targets of Nader’s – and he orchestrates ‘group gropes’ against unsuspecting girls. Lucky knows about this because of school rumours, and a survey question that keeps him finding notes in his locker. The survey was for social studies, and asked his classmates the question ‘if you were going to commit suicide, how would you do it?’ One girl, Charlotte, keeps leaving answers to the anonymous question in Lucky’s locker – her curled writing always admitting that she’d take Nader down with her.
After a particularly awful incident with Nader, Lucky’s mother puts her foot down and insists that something be done to stop the torment. She leaves this mission in the utterly incapable hands of Lucky’s father, and whisks herself and Lucky off to Arizona to stay with her brother and his wife.
While away, Lucky continues to dream, as he has his whole life, about rescuing his grandfather from a Viet Cong prison. In this departure from reality (something A.S. King is fond of doing – a sprinkling of magical realism, if you will) Lucky learns about the impotence of violence, and the importance of survival. Lucky also learns about the man his father missed out on in his life . . . and, slowly, Lucky starts to understand some of his father’s problems. About how you can miss someone you never even knew.
‘Everybody Sees the Ants’ is a dark and gritty young adult read, one that hurts so much because it speaks a lot of truth. Lucky is a gorgeous and kind young man, navigating his way to adulthood amidst the violence of Nader McMillan and the brutality he witnesses in his dreams, of his captured grandfather. A.S. King has written another brilliant young adult read; on the surface ‘Everybody Sees the Ants’ may seem to be talking a lot about violence, but as the novel progresses Lucky learns that sometimes violence is not the answer. Sometimes it’s more powerful to just stand up, speak your mind and not retreat into the comfort and safety of your shell. Brilliant.